By Lawrence White
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Johnny Sexton steered Ireland to a 27-24 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday, grinding down a sparkling but indisciplined home side to cap off a brilliant weekend of Six Nations rugby and send his team shooting up the standings.
Tries by Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne and the unerring boot of flyhalf Sexton helped the Irish to a win that lifted them to second in the table on 11 points, albeit with no hope of winning the tournament with Wales on 19 and one game each left.
Scotland were at times dazzling in attack, with their main creative forces Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg shining, as they ran in brilliant tries for Russell, Huw Jones and Hamish Watson but could not match Ireland's control.
Sexton piled on the penalties in the second half as Ireland survived a spirited Scotland comeback and secured the win that left the hosts stuck in fifth place in the standings on six points albeit with two games remaining.
"We're just letting in soft tries, which is not acceptable at international level, and it is a little frustrating as we dominated the game," Sexton said.
"But, if we can finish second after a poor start to the Six Nations, we'll be happy."
With drizzle sweeping across Murrayfield this was a more error-strewn affair than the showcase of attacking precision put on by England and France on Saturday, but no less intense.
Both sides profited from the game's loose nature, with the ball constantly slipping from leaping defenders' clutches and referee Roman Poite allowing a fierce, if not always legal, scrap at the breakdown.
Ireland had thrown the most passes and made the most metres in the competition going into this game, but had too often struggled to convert that attacking intent into points.
Their sharper attacking play on Sunday was exemplified by a delightful double-sidestep from the burly Tadgh Furlong that left two defenders floored.
Sexton, back to near his best in front of watching Lions coach Warren Gatland, created the first try with a left-to-right bomb that Hogg and team mate Chris Harris conspired to spill.
Robbie Henshaw was on hand to dive on the loose ball, setting the tone for the entertaining chaos to come.
Russell struck back for Scotland with a madcap try that combined brilliant skill with outrageous fortune to stake his own claim for the red number 10 shirt.
Hogg charged down an attempted clearance deep on the left of the pitch and then, as the ball bounced off his chest, dabbed it cross-field with a chip-kick on the fly, allowing Russell to boot it forward and dive on yet another spilled ball in-goal.
For all their attacking brilliance it was a familiar story of a lack of discipline leading to disappointment for Scotland, who conceded 15 turnovers and lost six out of eight lineouts to leave their captain Hogg frustrated.
"Credit to Ireland, they took their opportunities, but for the second game in a row, we've been ill-disciplined and given easy field position and killed ourselves at times," he said.
The hosts gave themselves a late chance, levelling the score at 24-all when a brave call to go for the try from a penalty paid off as the mighty Hamish Watson muscled over.
But it was ultimately a triumph for Ireland's superior game management as talisman Sexton stroked over a typically nerveless near-touchline penalty in the dying minutes to seal the win.
Ireland face a tough final game against a seemingly rejuvenated England on March 20, while Scotland will look to recover their early tournament form against Italy on the same day before hoping to win their postponed game against France.
(Reporting by Lawrence White, editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)